The Place of Belief in a Pluralistic World
“How do you determine which worldviews should not be allowed to exist in our society?” This was my question to a Religious Studies graduate student here at UNC, when we struck up a conversation one day last fall. A speaker was coming to UNC who had been an anti-protester at Charlottesville’s Unite The Right rally in August of last year, and my friend and I began a conversation about what ideologies should not be tolerated in society.
“I guess the only worldviews that shouldn’t exist are the ones believing that other worldviews shouldn’t exist.”
His response intrigued me. The irony of it was not lost on him. He knew that by his own declaration, the worldview he presented should not be allowed to exist. But I knew what he meant. In a globalized society, if we don’t make space for other beliefs and worldviews, even ones that starkly contradict ours, there will be violence.
This has led to a new unforgivable sin in modern society: intolerance. If an ideological group decides that all other groups, or any other group, should no longer exist, they will not have a place in our society; and for good reason. With the spread of a globalized culture, groups from different cultural, religious, ideological, and historical backgrounds are living, working, learning, and governing together for the first time in history, and this whole project — the project of globalization and harmonious living — can crumble if people start asserting dominance over other worldviews. So pluralism is the answer.
Some Christian thought leaders have raised issue with pluralism, arguing that it weakens the truths and traditions from which Christianity emerges. This argument could be used for any faith or ideological belief. By embracing a pluralistic society, the ancient truths of our worldviews could be diluted into a kind of vague relativism. This is the danger of the globalized melting pot, and this is why some are fearful of a pluralistic society.
It seems like many of these fears simply misunderstand pluralism. Lesslie Newbigin, writing in England in the 1980s, defines a pluralistic society as “not merely a society which is in fact plural in the variety of cultures, religions, and lifestyles which it embraces, but pluralist in the sense that this plurality is celebrated as things to be approved and cherished.”
A pluralistic society not only has multiple varying worldviews represented, but desires that multiple varying worldviews are represented. As I will point out in more detail, this does not mean that any individual need abandon the conviction and dedication that he or she has for truth, rather it means making space in the public society for people who may disagree in every way. It means that one must love his or her ideological enemy.
Pluralism does not mean that Christians need to be less dedicated to their faith or scripture. In fact, the fear that many Christians have surrounding pluralism is misplaced. Don’t forget the society from which our faith emerged. In ancient Rome, religious pluralism was commonplace. Roman Paganism was not a cohesive religion, but actually comprised thousands of religions, with different views of the world. Paganism and its thousands of variations combined with Judaism, Christianity, and eventually Manichaeism (an Iranian dualistic religion that thrived in late antiquity). This society was the petri-dish of early Christianity. So religious pluralism is no stranger to the Christian faith, in fact it feels quite at home there.
Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar here at UNC, describes how the Edict of Milan, which the emperor Constantine wrote to legalize Christianity, was the first government document pronouncing religious freedom. Of course, the “Christian state” of the Roman Empire unfortunately turned to violence and conquering in the name of Jesus, because they abandoned the religious freedom of an earlier age, but nevertheless the beginning of the Christian faith was born in a kind of pluralistic society.
In fact, a pluralistic society is the ideal situation for the Christian mission.
The Christian mission is, as Newbigin puts it “to proclaim and propel.” Christians are to proclaim, he explains, the message of Christ’s gospel. This they should do without shame, as the apostle Paul wrote in Romans “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” So the Christian mission is on one hand to proclaim the theological truths of the Scriptures, encouraging other people to follow Jesus as well.
On the other hand, the Christian mission is to propel society forward. Newbigin writes that “the coming of the gospel into any society introduces the vision of a new world, a different world, a world for which it is legitimate to hope.” This is the part of following Jesus that involves ushering the kingdom of God into the earth through scientific progress, medical advancement, creation care, nonviolence, and love for one’s neighbor. This is the mindset that brought about the era of Western progress to begin with. The university, the hospital, and the laboratory, were born from the Christian mission of propelling the world forward. Mark Sayers, an Australian pastor and cultural commentator, notes in his book “The Disappearing Church,” that Post-Christian culture is “moving beyond Christianity, while simultaneously feasting on its fruit.” He points out that “Post- Christianity intuitively yearns for the justice and peace of the Kingdom (of God).”
So if this is the mission: to proclaim and propel, what does a pluralistic society offer? Is there room in this society for such a mission?
As I understand it, a pluralistic society allows people the freedom to listen. When the gospel is proclaimed in a controlled society, where worldviews are few, and are not free, the result is either rejection or compulsion. Such a society will either outright reject the gospel of Christ, or force it upon people, turning a message of freedom into chains of imprisonment. Evangelism is a beautiful project in a pluralistic society, where disciples can be made and people can begin a new relationship with Jesus freely. Such discipleship will always come at a cost. Relationships may change, hardships may result. But a pluralistic society offers an open-handed environment wherein people can honestly examine their hearts without fear and hear the gospel of Jesus. So we can honestly proclaim his gospel best in a pluralistic society.
The Christian mission of propelling is also best done in a pluralistic society. Bringing the Kingdom of God to the earth involves having peace and progress while the project of evangelism continues. If the aim of Jesus is to establish God’s eternal Kingdom in all the world, then in the meantime we can usher in the characteristics of this Kingdom (things like nonviolence, education, love, etc.) as we wait for the manifest presence of the eternal King. Pluralism is a good environment for this because, as the graduate student showed me, it asserts that no harm will come to anyone if they happen to disagree with us. Pluralism aims to be nonviolent and loving. This sort of society ameliorates the Christian mission of propelling. So in my view, Christians should take refuge in the pluralistic society because it allows us to pursue our mission.
As American society, especially in universities, continues to grow more diverse in its ideologies and religious views, Christians shouldn’t worry. This isn’t a failure or hindrance of God, it merely shows that the mission of propeling society toward a more free and peaceful world is succeeding. One thing to avoid, however, is plurality of the self. An ideal pluralistic society does not insist that an individual believe in multiple, discrepant truths. This is the mistake people often make when they hear the term pluralism, and there are many who champion such a pluralism. But the maintaining of multiple incoherent truths is at the expense of reason and logic. One can be a member of a pluralistic society and believe that Jesus is the only way to true human flourishing. There is no need to sacrifice conviction and dedication.
There is a kind of pluralism, then, that can be unhelpful. If a culture collectively demands that each person hold to the view that multiple contradicting truths can be valid, and this culture claims that people without this view are not welcome, that would be unhelpful, and that cannot be called pluralism. Pluralism is the presence of multiple people representing different worldviews, not the dominance of a single worldview. Even if a dominant worldview is called “pluralism,” it cannot be truly pluralistic if it restricts the presence of other, contradicting views.
The best pluralistic society is one in which all people decide to value one another’s presence without the loss of their deeply held beliefs. This is the mission of the modern West, and though it may spook the religious fundamentalist at first, there is no need for concern. In a society like ours, life is valued above all, and grace and truth will support it.
1. Newbegin. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Page 1.
2. This is drawn from Bart Ehrman’s statement to The New York Times in Tom Bissell’s “Why Did Christianity Prevail?”
3. Newbegin. (129).
4. Romans 1:16
5. Newbegin. (130).
6. Mark Sayers, The Disappearing Church. (15).